What’s the opposite of a zombie?

I still remember where I was when he used the word to describe many of our colleagues. We were leaving the office after a meeting, and the regional head of our division was talking about what he saw in the lobby at work each day.

“You look around,” he said, “and there’s no spark. They’re like zombies.” 

He wasn’t saying they were untalented or weren’t good people. Just that he noticed a palpable lack of energy. They were going through the motions of work but exhibited a kind of lifelessness.

What would the opposite of that be, and how might you help more people feel like that instead?

In Alive at Work, Professor or Organizational Behavior Dan Cable described his research on the topic, including an experiment involving the on-boarding of new employees at a Wipro call center in India. (The experiment was also popularized in The Culture Code by Dan Coyle, and replicated in other environments.)

New hires were randomly assigned to one of three groups. The first group went through the traditional Wipro orientation, which focused on skills training. The second went through an orientation in which a senior leader talked about the company, asked newcomers to reflect on why they might be proud to work at Wipro, and gave them a Wipro-branded sweatshirt. In the third condition, the new employees were asked about “times they used their best characteristics” and then ask to share their personal stories with other new employees in the group. At the end of the session, they were given a sweatshirt with their name on it. 

Six months later, the researchers found that the employees in the third condition had significantly higher customer satisfaction ratings, and employee retention in the group was better by 32%.

Dan Cable calls the approach and the feelings it engenders “activating your best self.” The founder of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, calls the feeling “zest, a positive trait reflecting a person’s approach to life with anticipation, energy, and excitement.” In Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity, David Whyte describes it as a feeling of vitality.

Companies need the contributing vitality of all the individuals who work for them in order to stay alive in the sea of changeability in which they find themselves. They must find a real way of asking people to bring these hidden heartfelt qualities to the workplace. A way that doesn’t make them feel manipulated or the subject of some 5 year plan. 

What the on-boarding research shows is that even small efforts which individuate employees and humanize a company can lead to measurable business benefits.  (“But in all my years of working with companies,” Dan Cable writes, “I have not seen a company use this approach.”)

One of my goals in spreading Working Out Loud is to show we don’t need to be limited to research experiments or to a few techniques in the first days at a company. We can help employees activate their best selves on their own, throughout their career, so instead of zombies at work we have more people feeling fully alive.

Disengaged at work.jpg


Drip, drip, drip

There seem to be more and more storefront signs like these in New York City. (And perhaps everywhere?) The kind with the hand-drawn witty saying or motivational quote designed to grab your attention. 

This one worked.

On the way to Yoga Vida in Tribeca

On the way to Yoga Vida in Tribeca

It’s truly ancient wisdom, as Ovid wrote it (in Latin) well over two thousand years ago. “Dripping water hollows out stone, not through force, but through persistence.”

I passed it as I was going to a yoga class with my wife, something I never imagined participating in when we first met. Now, though, the class is one of my favorite things to do together and a highlight of my week. As I passed the sign, I reflected on how many drops it took to wear down my resistance and form a new habit, at how long it took for me to change.

Ovid’s wisdom applies to work, too. Yesterday, a WOL Circle shared a photo from their final meeting. In the picture were five strangers from Yemen, Romania, Germany, and Switzerland who came together for 12 weeks, forging connections and sharing beautiful smiles. I never imagined how such a thing might be possible, never mind that I could be part of making it happen. 

Drip, drip, drip. 

Of course, there are other ways to “hollow out a stone”. Yet the other methods I’ve tried tend to feel more stressful and less sustainable. Whether I want to change myself or change the world, I prefer to follow Ovid’s advice. 

Drip by drip, step by step, Circle by Circle, we each need to keep going till a path emerges and we find a way to make a difference. 

***

Note: I’ll be on holiday in Japan for the rest of August, using the time to be with family, explore a country I love, and work on several new WOL methods. See you in September… 

Yemen 🇾🇪, Switzerland 🇨🇭, Romania 🇷🇴, Germany 🇩🇪 … Amazing.

The WOL CircleFinder

If you wanted to try a WOL Circle, how would you find other people to join you?

A little over a year ago on a rainy weekend in July, Leonid Lezner created a tool to make it easier, and he called it the CircleFinder. Since then over 1000 people have used it to form over 150 Circles .

Today it’s an official part of workingoutloud.com, and it’s a first step for matching people in a wide variety of ways and helping them have a better Circle experience.

Click on the image to see the new CircleFinder

Click on the image to see the new CircleFinder

The birth of the CircleFinder

When I approached Leonid about the CircleFinder recently, I asked him why he volunteered to build it in the first place and what he expected from it.

I was really impressed by how the circles are matched at Bosch. People simply have to enter their name in a spreadsheet and highly motivated colleagues would take their request and match them with a circle. Nothing similar existed for circles outside companies, so I got the idea that the WOL community urgently needs a simple tool to match circles and to automate the process.

I wasn’t expecting that it would be used at all. But after a few months, I noticed that more and more people were signing up and creating circles and recommending it on Twitter and Facebook. 

The best thing for me is when people contact me to thank me. They tell me about their Working Out Loud experience and that the CircleFinder was the enabler to start or join a circle. For me it means I’m an active participant in the WOL movement and can give something back to the community.

What’s next?

Then I asked Leonid what his plans were. I knew he has a full-time job and also produces an excellent podcast (in German) that is becoming more and more popular. Did he want to keep working on the CircleFinder?

After almost one year now I have to admit that the development and operation of such a platform is a time-consuming hobby. Family, work and my podcasts are already bringing me to my limits. When John asked me about the future of the CircleFinder and said he would like to take it over as a part of the official WorkingOutLoud website, I was really excited.

We exchanged ideas about what WOL software might look like in the future, including rebuilding the CircleFinder from scratch to include a wide range of functionality, from forming Circles in new ways (at events, inside companies, based on profiles) to helping Circle members throughout the 12 weeks.

The WOL CircleFinder is a fantastic start, and I am extremely grateful to Leonid for what he created and for his willingness and effort to migrate it.

If you would like to form a Circle or help others do so, please consider using the CircleFinder at circlefinder.workingoutloud.com. If you have an idea for how the CircleFinder can be improved, please contact me.

Thank you, Leonid and thank you, WOL Community!


Results of the WOL: Self-Care experiment

Exactly a year ago, I wrote that I was working on a new practice called WOL: Self-Care (or WOL: SC), and a few months later we began a pilot with one hundred people. Just this past month I compiled survey results.

Here’s what happened.

WOL-SC.png

The Why & How of WOL: SC

My intention was to create a new practice that people could join after their WOL Circle ended. It would be comprised of five different kinds of mindfulness practices spread over six months. You would still be part of a peer support group, but with some important differences.

You will do daily exercises on your own each month, and your meetings will be for you to share what happened and to prepare for a different practice the next month.

Also, unlike a WOL Circle, there is no goal or relationship list. The practices are largely focused on yourself. The only goals are to develop greater self-awareness and mindfulness. These are the keys to realizing more of your potential as well as a greater sense of fulfillment and happiness. 

Whereas Working Out Loud improves how you relate to others, WOL-SC helps you improve how you relate to yourself.

The survey results

Whether or not the experiment was a success depends on your perspective. Fewer than half of the WOL:SC groups finished, which is disappointing. And yet there were clear themes about how to improve the practice, so I learned a lot:

  • Change the timing of the meetings to be closer together

  • Include more interaction between members

  • Make the material more engaging, perhaps with videos and/or a journal

Regarding the exercises, most liked them and a few even called them “life-changing.” But a significant percentage felt they were too personal, too similar to things they’ve already done, or not suitable for WOL or the workplace. 

What’s next

The last question I asked in the survey was, “If you were me, would you keep working on WOL: Self-Care?” 

The responses were (mostly) positive and encouraging, and yet even if they weren’t I would keep working on WOL: SC. As I wrote about a year ago, the needs for putting these ideas into practice are greater than ever, and we have a tremendous opportunity because of how WOL has spread.

Hundreds of companies are spreading Working Out Loud Circles, proving that they are willing to create a safe, confidential space for employees to develop themselves. What if we could build on that, and use Circles to enhance employees' focus, self-control, and stress management while helping them be kinder and happier? How many people would benefit if all those wellness programs had a new method that was easy to implement and spread? 

As a next step, I will redesign WOL: Self-Care, employing a different structure, different media, and different exercises. I will also create alternative practices so those who finish WOL Circles have multiple options for continuing their development.

Thank you to everyone who participated in the pilot as well as those who offered ideas and opinions along the way. I greatly appreciate your support and contributions.

Who would you tell?

When you’re anxious about not being good enough, or you have a goal you don’t dare to share, or you’re unhappy with your job and want to explore options…

Who would you tell? 

At work, the last person I would talk to about my weaknesses would be my boss or Human Resources. A colleague once described our management team as “a wolf pack.” Given the focus on performance ratings and curves, any vulnerability made it easier for you to be sacrificed.

Telling your partner can also be challenging. How do you say that the job your family depends on isn’t fulfilling? Or that you may not be the person they expected you to be?

One place where you can share such things is a WOL Circle. A group in India, for example, just completed their 12 weeks and described the “sharing of experiences, dreams, and aspirations without fear or inhibition.” One person said, “I soon realized it was my ‘safe space.’”

That feeling of psychological safety made it possible for them to share what was difficult to share elsewhere. and know they had been heard. Better still, week by week they took actions that helped them make progress and build their confidence. More than just support, the Circle offered empowerment.

It’s extremely rare to have a safe space at work, or anywhere for that matter. Where’s yours?

Source: http://sailornattie.files.wordpress.com/2010/11/lightingfour.jpg

Source: http://sailornattie.files.wordpress.com/2010/11/lightingfour.jpg

Announcing WOL Enterprise Solutions

If you want to scale an employee-led movement, you shouldn’t “leave it alone” and hope for the best. Instead, you should leverage your company’s resources so you can reach more people and help change the culture.

Whether you’re in the early days of spreading WOL inside your organization or you’re looking to expand the grassroots movement you created, there are now products and services that can help you.  

The WOL Roadmap

A pattern has emerged from the many different companies spreading WOL and it generally has four phases, identified by the approximate number of people in Circles and by common milestones we see. Although the initial Pilot phase can be started by anyone in the company using free PDFs, moving to the later phases is much more likely with professional materials and support. 

3 Ways to Ensure Success

Based on our experience with companies who’ve successfully used WOL in many locations and departments, there are three things that make Circles more effective and easier to spread.

1. Customized Materials

The Video Guides & Journals announced last week make the Circle experience more convenient and professional. Increasingly, employees expect e-learning to be available via video and mobile, and the Circle Journal makes it possible to capture progress in one place. 

Customizing the Journal makes it easier to see how WOL relates to your company specifically. By including your brand and welcome message, you let employees know WOL is officially supported. Including your own examples each week shows them how to practice at work using the company’s technology.

2. Professional Support

The volunteers who support the Pilot phase need assistance as WOL spreads. Professional support, offered by me and a growing network of certified WOL Coaches, helps grow the movement while ensuring good results for Circle members and program owners. WOL Mentor Training enables you to develop your own internal capability across locations & divisions.

3. Additional Programs

In the later phases, going beyond the basic WOL Circle method allows you to reach a wider range of employees in different kinds of work environments. Here are several WOL programs that are available now or are under development:

  • WOL for Leaders pairs executives with reverse mentors

  • WOL for Managers & On-boarding are add-ons for these specific groups

  • WOL: Self-Care improves employee wellness

  • WOL: Purpose reduces busy-ness & information overload

  • WOL for Operational Employees enables front-line workers to experience the benefits of WOL

Enterprise Solutions: Basic, Advanced, Partner

As your movement succeeds, three annual subscription packages - Basic, Advanced, and Partner - offer you a range of options and support. For more about the products and services in each package, including pricing, contact me at john.stepper@workingoutloud.com.

By taking your WOL efforts to the next level, you can help thousands of colleagues feel more confident, develop new skills, and realize more of their potential. We want to help you make the difference you aspire to make.

WOL Circle Video Guides & Journal now for sale

Starting today, you can buy the new WOL Circle Video Guides + Journal for an introductory price of €49 (about $55, including shipping and tax).

I’m excited to make this package available. The hundreds of people who have tested it said the combination of the videos and journal is “so much more personal & engaging” and “would definitely recommend it to others.” 

Click on the image to view the Introduction & purchase the Video+Journal package

Click on the image to view the Introduction & purchase the Video+Journal package

Together the Videos + Journal make for a much better Circle experience. You can watch or listen to the videos at home, on your commute, or during your meetings. And the journal allows you to do the exercises and capture all your progress in one convenient place.

Here’s what’s included for €49:

13 Video Guides

  • All the instructions, stories & tips you need for a great WOL Circle

  • Watch or listen on your mobile, laptop, or desktop

  • Over 3 hours of content

  • Access for 6 months

Circle Journal

  • 200+ pages in an easy-to-handle format

  • Instructions for all the exercises

  • Plenty of space to write

  • Bonus content

  • Includes shipping & tax

You can watch the introduction here. Then click on any of the 12 weeks to purchase the Video Guides & Circle Journal. 

Thank you for all your support and for spreading the word about WOL. This package is the first of a wide range of programs and resources I will add to the WOL Library in the coming months, both for individuals and for organizations. (More about that next week.) If you have any questions, contact me at orders@workingoutloud.com. I’ll be happy to hear from you.

I hope you enjoy a new and improved Circle experience.

We started out as strangers, now we’re friends

Our tendency to divide people into Us versus Them seems to be getting worse, in both the workplace and the world. But what if we can help people experience a better way? What if people can see how even strangers - people in different places and different circumstances - can come together in a way that provides mutual support and benefit?

This past week, Anna in Germany sent me a message about her WOL Circle. She told me her group is “between 25 and 55 years old - single, married, with and without kids, all different styles of living and different career steps.” She captured a feeling I’ve heard many times before, so I asked if I could share her note today.

I'm in week 6 of my first WOL experience - and I love it!!! My circle members are the best I could have chosen. I really appreciate them and how we are growing together. 

Our WOL circle is like magic. We started as 5 total strangers with such different backgrounds and last week we met for the first time in real life and it felt like we had been friends for years.  

Thank you so much!!!

Week after week on a video call, Anna’s Circle is experiencing a very human process of giving and receiving, discovering they have much more in common than they might have expected. Their exchanges deepen a sense of trust and relatedness between them, and they feel connected instead of divided.

Imagine if we could spread this feeling of “Us” instead of “Us and Them”? Once you learn how fulfilling it is to develop meaningful connections with four strangers, you can practice it with anyone. 

Spreading the Feeling of “Us”


“Grass doesn’t grow faster when you pull it”

Though it’s often described as an African proverb, I first came across the expression via an email from Petra in Europe.

Thank you for introducing WOL to the business world. I really hope we can change the culture of our company, but I know we have to be patient. “Grass doesn't grow faster when you pull it.” :-)

Petra made me think about the grassroots movements that sometimes form within organizations. There’s something almost magical about an employee-led movement, the earnest coming together of people who share a passion and commitment for making a difference. 

Individuals participating in these movements are sometimes skeptical about management initiatives that try to accelerate what they started, “pulling the grass” as it were. Yet if your goal is to reach more people in your organization, management isn’t something to be avoid. Rather, their support is exactly what you need for your grassroots to grow, and it can come in many forms and from many different people. 

  • Support could be a Learning & Development manager putting WOL Circles in the Corporate Academy, making it easier for employees to join and making it clear that personal development can be done on “work time.”

  • It could be the right structures, such as an on-boarding, talent management, innovation, or diversity program, that gives the grassroots new fields where they can spread.

  • It could be a board member issuing a press release, communicating how this kind of development helps the company.

  • It could be managers enrolling in Circles or WOL for Leaders (a reverse mentoring program) so they experience the benefits themselves and signal to others that these kinds of “WOL behaviors” are encouraged.

Because “grass doesn’t grow faster when you pull it” we ensure Circles are always optional and confidential, so management can’t dictate participation or the choice of goals in WOL Circles. But grass does grow faster - and is healthier and more sustainable - when you have the right conditions. Just as the landscapers in my local park provide nutrients, water, structures (fences), and protection (a cover in winter), it’s possible for management to provide a fertile environment conducive to growth.  

If, like Petra, you’re hoping to change your company’s culture, then part of what you must do is find managers open to change and make it easy for them to support you in some way. Doing so is key to scaling your efforts, helping more people, and making the difference you want to make.

My view as I wrote this post in the local park: Healthy grass roots!



Intimacy with a stranger in 20 seconds

Ten thousand years ago, if you were rejected by your social group you would die. To improve our collective chances of belonging and surviving, we evolved highly sophisticated ways of tracking status of group members in ways that help us cooperate and collaborate. 

Deep in our brains, we still carry this instinctual need for belonging. It may no longer be life or death, but we feel pain when we sense we’re being rejected and we feel better when we sense we’re accepted and safe.

Knowing this can change how you relate to people.

Is it safe?

In The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, author Dan Coyle asserts that the cultures of the world’s most successful groups “are created by a specific set of skills which tap into the power of our social brains.” The first of these skills is to “build safety,” learning how to exchange signals that build social bonds of belonging and identity. These signals, or belonging cues, communicate three things.

  1. I see you.

  2. I care about you.

  3. We have a shared future together. 

When we exchange these signals, we feel safe and accepted. When we don’t, we feel uncertain and increasingly anxious.

A fundamental human skill

The phrase “psychological safety” may seem more suitable for the laboratory than the workplace or home, but Google’s research into effective teams lists psychological safety as the first of “five key dynamics that set successful teams apart from other teams at Google.” The belonging cues are even taught at elementary schools, using the SLANT strategy

“SLANT” is an acronym that stands for ‘Sit up, Lean forward, Ask and answers questions, Nod your head and Track the speaker.’ It is a simple technique to encourage and remind students on being attentive and active in class. 

The crux of the SLANT strategy is to enhance learning and student performance by creating a behavior incorporating the conscious use of positive body language.

Track the speaker and make eye contact. I see you. Nod your head and ask questions. I care about what you have to say. Ask and answer questions. We have a shared future together. If you think this seems silly or unnecessary, try having a conversation with your child or partner while they’re looking at their phone. How effective is that conversation? How do you feel?

Is it difficult to learn how to do this?

Recently, I heard Dan Coyle speak at a conference in Houston. He’s an insightful, intelligent, engaging presenter - and I had to give a talk after him! I related the exchanges of signals that Dan talked about to the giving and receiving that takes place as you Work Out Loud. In the workshop after my talk, I included an exercise of offering a contribution of appreciation, and a woman in the audience demonstrated how easy it can be to communicate belonging cues.

With a single sentence, she made it clear she was listening to what I had to say, was interested in it, and expected to use it in the future. Writing it took just a few seconds, and it led to a further exchange during the workshop.

But if it’s so easy, why don’t we have more successful groups and positive cultures? Because the hard part - the art of communications and good relationships - is to practice making these exchanges over and over again, reinforcing and enhancing social bonds. That’s the thing most of us struggle with. We forget to say what we feel, we avoid the risk of discomfort, we assume the other person knows.

The basis of human connection is an exchange of signals over time. What signals are you sending?